British Library

British Library
British Library
British library london.jpg
The British Library from the concourse
Country United Kingdom
Type National library
Established 1973 (1753)
Location 96, Euston Road, London, England, NW1 2DB
Branches 2 (Boston Spa, West Yorkshire and Colindale, London)
Items collected books, journals, newspapers, magazines, sound and music recordings, patents, databases, maps, stamps, prints, drawings and manuscripts

150,000,000 total items
13,950,000 books[1]
824,101 serial titles
351,116 manuscripts (single and volumes)
8,266,276 philatelic items
4,347,505 cartographic items
1,607,885 music scores

3,000,000 sound recordings
Legal deposit Yes, as enshrined in the Legal Deposit Libraries Act 2003
Access and use
Access requirements Open to anyone with a need to use the collections and services
Other information
Budget £142million [1]
Director Dame Lynne Brindley (Chief Executive, since 2000)

The British Library is the national library of the United Kingdom,[2] and is the world's largest library in terms of total number of items. The library is a major research library, holding over 150 million items from every country in the world, in virtually all known languages[3] and in many formats, both print and digital: books, manuscripts, journals, newspapers, magazines, sound and music recordings, videos, play-scripts, patents, databases, maps, stamps, prints, drawings. The Library's collections include around 14 million books[4] (second only to the USA's Library of Congress), along with substantial holdings of manuscripts and historical items dating back as far as 2000 BC.

As a legal deposit library, the British Library receives copies of all books produced in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, including a significant proportion of overseas titles distributed in the UK. It also has a programme for content acquisitions. The British Library adds some three million items every year occupying 11 kilometres (6.8 mi) of new shelf space.

The library is a non-departmental public body sponsored by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. It is located on the north side of Euston Road in St Pancras, London (between Euston railway station and St Pancras railway station) and has a document storage centre and reading room at Boston Spa, Wetherby in West Yorkshire.

The library was originally a department of the British Museum and from the mid-19th century occupied the famous circular British Museum Reading Room. It became legally separate in 1973, and by 1997 had moved into its new purpose-built building at St Pancras, London.


Historical background

The British Library was created on 1 July 1973 as a result of the British Library Act 1972.[5] Prior to this, the national library was part of the British Museum, which provided the bulk of the holdings of the new library, alongside smaller organisations which were folded in (such as the National Central Library, the National Lending Library for Science and Technology and the British National Bibliography).[5] In 1974 functions previously exercised by the Office for Scientific and Technical Information were taken over; in 1982 the India Office Library and Records and the HMSO Binderies became British Library responsibilities.[6] In 1983, the Library absorbed the National Sound Archive, which holds many sound and video recordings, with over a million discs and thousands of tapes.[7]

The core of the Library's historical collections is based on a series of donations and acquisitions from the 18th century, known as the 'foundation collections'.[8] These include the books and manuscripts of Sir Robert Cotton, Sir Hans Sloane, Robert Harley and King George III.[9]

The British Library in Thorp Arch, West Yorkshire

For many years its collections were dispersed in various buildings around central London, in places such as Bloomsbury (within the British Museum), Chancery Lane, and Holborn, with an interlibrary lending centre at Boston Spa, Wetherby in West Yorkshire (situated on Thorp Arch Trading Estate) and the newspaper library at Colindale, north-west London.[5] Since 1997 the main collection has been housed in a single new building on Euston Road next to St. Pancras railway station, although post-1800 newspapers are still held at Colindale, and the Document Supply Centre is in Yorkshire. The Library has a book storage depot in Woolwich, south-east London. The new library was designed specially for the purpose by the architect Colin St. John Wilson.[5] Facing Euston Road is a large piazza that includes pieces of public art, such as large sculptures by Eduardo Paolozzi (a bronze statue based on William Blake's study of Isaac Newton) and Antony Gormley. It is the largest public building constructed in the United Kingdom in the 20th century.[10][11]

The British Library and St Pancras

In the middle of the building is a four-storey glass tower containing the King's Library, with 65,000 printed volumes along with other pamphlets, manuscripts and maps collected by King George III between 1763 and 1820.[12] In December 2009 a new storage building at Thorp Arch, City of Leeds, West Yorkshire was opened by Rosie Winterton. The new facility, costing £26 million, has a capacity for seven million items, stored in more than 140,000 bar-coded containers, which are retrieved by robots,[13] from the 262 kilometres of temperature and humidity-controlled storage space.[14]

Legal deposit

Interior of the British Library, with the smoked glass wall of the King's Library in the background.

In England, legal deposit can be traced back to at least 1610.[15] An Act of Parliament in 1911 established the principle of the legal deposit, ensuring that the British Library and five other libraries in Great Britain and Ireland are entitled to receive a free copy of every item published in Britain. The other five libraries are: the Bodleian Library at Oxford; the University Library at Cambridge; the Trinity College Library at Dublin; and the National Libraries of Scotland and Wales. The British Library is the only one that must automatically receive a copy of every item published in Britain; the others are entitled to these items, but must specifically request them from the publisher after learning that they have been or are about to be published, a task done centrally by the Agency for the Legal Deposit Libraries.

Further, under the terms of Irish copyright law (most recently the Copyright and Related Rights Act 2000), the British Library is entitled to automatically receive a free copy of every book published in the Republic of Ireland, alongside the National Library of Ireland, the Trinity College Library at Dublin, the library of the University of Limerick, the library of Dublin City University and the libraries of the four constituent universities of the National University of Ireland. The Bodleian Library, Cambridge University Library, and the National Libraries of Scotland and Wales are also entitled to copies of material published in Ireland, but again must formally make requests.

In 2003 the Ipswich MP Chris Mole introduced a Private Member's Bill which became the Legal Deposit Libraries Act 2003. The Act extends United Kingdom legal deposit requirements to electronic documents, such as CD-ROMs and selected websites.[16]

The Library also holds the Asia, Pacific and Africa Collections (APAC) which include the India Office Records and materials in the languages of Asia and of north and north-east Africa.[17]

Using the library's reading rooms

The mechanical book handling system (MBHS[18]) used to deliver requested books from stores to reading rooms.
Bronze sculpture. Bill Woodrow's 'Sitting On History' was purchased for the British Library by Carl Djerassi and Diane Middlebrook in 1997.
Sitting on History, with its ball and chain, refers to the book as the captor of information which we cannot escape

The bust visible top left is Colin St. John Wilson RA by Celia Scott, 1998 a gift from the American Trust for the British Library. Sir Colin designed the British Library building

The Library is open to everyone who has a genuine need to use its collections. Anyone with a permanent address who wishes to carry out research can apply for a Reader Pass; they are required to provide proof of signature and address for security purposes.[19]

Historically, only those wishing to use specialised material unavailable in other public or academic libraries would be given a Reader Pass. Recently, the Library has been criticised for admitting numbers of undergraduate students, who have access to their own university libraries, to the reading rooms. The Library replied that it has always admitted undergraduates as long as they have a legitimate personal, work-related or academic research purpose.[20]

The majority of catalogue entries can be found on the British Library Integrated Catalogue, which is based on Aleph,[21] a commercial Integrated library system. Other collections have their own catalogues, such as western manuscripts. The large reading rooms offer hundreds of seats which are often filled with researchers, especially during the Easter and summer holidays.

Material available online

The British Library makes a number of images of items within its collections available online. Its Online Gallery gives access to 30,000 images from various medieval books, together with a handful of exhibition-style items in a proprietary format, such as the Lindisfarne Gospels. This includes the facility to "turn the virtual pages" of a few documents, such as Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks.[22]

The British Library's commercial secure electronic delivery service was started in 2003 at a cost of £6 million. This offers more than 100 million items (including 280,000 journal titles, 50 million patents, 5 million reports, 476,000 US dissertations and 433,000 conference proceedings) for researchers and library patrons worldwide which were previously unavailable outside the Library due to copyright restrictions. In line with a government directive that the British Library must cover a percentage of its operating costs, a fee is charged to the user. However, this service is no longer profitable and has led to a series of restructures to try to prevent further losses.[23] When Google Books started, the British Library signed an agreement with Microsoft to digitise a number of books from the British Library for its Live Search Books project.[24] This material was only available to readers in the US, and closed in May 2008.[25] The scanned books are currently available via the British Library catalogue or Amazon.[26]

In October 2010 the British Library launched its Management and business studies portal. This website is designed to allow digital access to management research reports, consulting reports, working papers and articles.[27]


Bronze sculpture. Inscription reads
'NEWTON' after William Blake by Eduardo Paolozzi 1995 Grant aided by The Foundation for Sport & the Arts. Funded by subscriptions from the football pools, Vernon, Littlewoods, Zetters

A number of books and manuscripts are on display to the general public in the Sir John Ritblat Gallery which is open seven days a week at no charge. Some of the items in the exhibition include Beowulf, a Gutenberg Bible, Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur (King Arthur), Captain Cook's journal, Jane Austen's History of England, Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures Under Ground, Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories, Charles Dickens's Nicholas Nickleby, Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway and a room devoted solely to Magna Carta.[28]

In addition to the permanent exhibition, there are frequent thematic exhibitions which has covered maps,[29] sacred texts[30] and now the history of the English language.[31]

Business and IP Centre

In May 2005, the British Library received a grant of £1 million from the London Development Agency to change two of its reading rooms into the Business & IP Centre. The Centre was opened in March 2006.[32] It holds arguably the most comprehensive collection of business and intellectual property (IP) material in the United Kingdom and is the official library of the UK Intellectual Property Office.

The collection is divided up into four main information areas: market research, company information, trade directories, and journals. It is free of charge in hard copy and online via approximately 30 subscription databases. Registered readers can access the collection and the databases.[33]

There are over 50 million patent specifications from 40 countries in a collection dating back to 1855. The collection also includes official gazettes on patents, trade marks and Registered Design; law reports and other material on litigation; and information on copyright. This is available in hard copy and via online databases.[34]

Staff are trained to guide small and medium enterprises (SME) and entrepreneurs to use the full range of resources.[34]

Sound archive

Tape players used in the British Library Sound Archives, 2009 photo.

The British Library Sound Archive holds more than a million discs and 185,000 tapes.[35] The collections come from all over the world and cover the entire range of recorded sound from music, drama and literature to oral history and wildlife sounds, stretching back over more than 100 years. The Sound Archive's online catalogue is updated daily.

It is also possible to listen to recordings from the collection in selected Reading Rooms in the Library through their SoundServer[36] and Listening and Viewing Service, which is based in the Rare Books & Music Reading Room.[37]

In 2006 the Library launched a new online resource Archival Sound Recordings which makes over 10,000 hours of the Sound Archive's recordings available online for UK higher and further education and the general public.[38]


British Library Newspapers, Colindale

The British Library Newspapers section is based in Colindale in North London.[39] The Library has an almost complete collection of British and Irish newspapers since 1840. This is partly because of the legal deposit legislation of 1869, which required newspapers to supply a copy of each edition of a newspaper to the library. London editions of national daily and Sunday newspapers are complete back to 1801. In total the collection consists of 660,000 bound volumes and 370,000 reels of microfilm containing tens of millions of newspapers with 52,000 titles on 45 km of shelves. In May 2010 a ten year programme of digitisation of the newspaper archives with commercial partner DC Thomson subsidiary brightsolid.[40][41]

Among the collections are the Thomason Tracts, containing 7,200 17th century newspapers,[42] and the Burney Collection, featuring newspapers from the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century.[43] The Thomason Tracts and Burney collections are held at St Pancras, and are available in digital facsimile.

The section also has extensive records of non-British newspapers in languages that use the Latin and Cyrillic alphabets. The Library's substantial holdings of newspapers in the languages of Asia and the Middle East may be accessed at the Library's reading rooms at St. Pancras.

Philatelic Collections

Philatelic collections

The British Library Philatelic Collections are held at St. Pancras. The Collections were established in 1891 with the donation of the Tapling collection,[44] they steadily developed and now comprise over 25 major collections and a number of smaller ones, encompassing a wide-range of disciplines. The collections include postage and revenue stamps, postal stationery, essays, proofs, covers and entries, "cinderella stamp" material, specimen issues, airmails, some postal history materials, official and private posts, etc., for almost all countries and periods.[45]

An extensive display of material from the collections is on exhibit, which may be the best permanent display of diverse classic stamps and philatelic material in the world. Approximately 80,000 items on 6,000 sheets may be viewed in 1,000 display frames; 2,400 sheets are from the Tapling Collection. All other material, which covers the whole world, is available to students and researchers.[45]

The entrance gate and its own shadow. The gate was designed by Lida and David Kindersley.

As well as these collections, the library actively acquires literature on the subject. This makes the British Library one of the world's prime philatelic research centres. The Head Curator of the Philatelic Collections is David Beech.[45]

Highlights of the collections

Highlights selected by the British Library include:[46]

Collections of manuscripts

There are also "Additional Manuscripts" series, which covers manuscripts that are not part of the named collections, and contains all manuscripts gifted, purchased or bequested to the Library since 1756.[50]

Transport connections

Service Station/Stop Lines/Routes served
London Buses London Buses British Library Handicapped/disabled access 10, 30, 59, 73, 91, 205, 390, 476,
N73, N91
London Underground London Underground King's Cross St. Pancras Handicapped/disabled access Circle line
Hammersmith & City line
Metropolitan line
Northern line
Piccadilly line
Victoria line
London Overground London Overground National Rail Euston Handicapped/disabled access Watford DC Line
National Rail National Rail King's Cross Handicapped/disabled access East Coast, First Capital Connect,
First Hull Trains, Grand Central
St Pancras Handicapped/disabled access East Midland Trains, Eurostar,
First Capital Connect, Southeastern

See also


  1. ^ a b British Library thirty-seventh annual report and accounts, 2009/10, ISBN 9780102966640 
  2. ^ Reitz, Joan M. (2004), Dictionary for Library and Information Science, Libraries Unlimited, p. 103, ISBN 9781591580751 
  3. ^ "Collection Development Policy". British Library. Retrieved 2011-01-15. 
  4. ^ "The British Library; Explore the world's knowledge". British Library. Retrieved 2010-04-12. 
  5. ^ a b c d "History of the British Library". British Library. Archived from the original on 2010-02-07. Retrieved 2010-02-07. 
  6. ^ Whitaker's Almanack; 1988, p. 409
  7. ^ "About the British Library Sound Archive". British Library. Archived from the original on 2010-02-07. Retrieved 2010-02-07. 
  8. ^ Wedgeworth, Robert (1993), World Encyclopedia of Library and Information Services (3 ed.), ALA Editions, p. 149, ISBN 9780838906095 
  9. ^ "Similar Projects - The British Library". Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Center. Archived from the original on 2010-02-07. Retrieved 2010-02-07. 
  10. ^ "British Library - About Us". British Library. Archived from the original on 2010-02-07. Retrieved 2010-02-07. 
  11. ^ Walkowitz, Daniel J.; Knauer, Lisa Maya (2009), Contested Histories in Public Space: Memory, Race, and Nation, Duke University Press, p. 103, ISBN 9780822342366 
  12. ^ Nichols, Thomas (1870), A handy-book of the British Museum: for every-day readers, Cassell, Petter, and Galpin, p. 396, 
  13. ^ "Robots used at £26m British Library store". BBC. 2009-12-03. Archived from the original on 2010-02-07. Retrieved 2010-02-07. 
  14. ^ "Minister opens British Library's new £26 million storage facility in Yorkshire – the most advanced in the world.". British Library. 2009-12-03. Archived from the original on 2010-02-07. Retrieved 2010-02-07. 
  15. ^ Robert C. Barrington Partridge "The history of the legal deposit of books throughout the British Empire", London: Library Association, 1938
  16. ^ "Legal Deposit Libraries Act 2003". Office of Public Sector Information. Archived from the original on 2010-02-07. Retrieved 2010-02-07. 
  17. ^ "Asia, Pacific and Africa Collections". British Library. Retrieved 2010-02-08. 
  18. ^ "Glossary of Map terms". British Library. 2003-11-30. Retrieved 2011-01-28. 
  19. ^ "How to register for a Reader Pass". British Library. Retrieved 2010-02-08. 
  20. ^ Brierley, Danny (2008-04-21). "British Library like a branch of Starbooks say the literati". Evening Standard. Retrieved 2010-02-08. 
  21. ^ (PDF) Case Study: Aleph at the British Library, Exlibris Group, 26 November 2007, archived from the original on 2011-02-06, 
  22. ^ "Explore the British Library". British Library. Retrieved 2010-02-25. 
  23. ^ "PCS strike: your reports". Socialist Worker. 31 January 2007. Retrieved 2010-04-12. 
  24. ^ Tran, Mark (4 November 2005). "Microsoft teams up with British Library to digitise books". The Guardian (London: Guardian News and Media). Retrieved 2010-04-12. 
  25. ^ Helft, Miguel (2008-05-24). "Microsoft Will Shut Down Book Search Program". New York Times. Retrieved 2010-02-26. 
  26. ^ "Amazon seals British Library deal for free Kindle classics". 
  27. ^ "Management and business studies portal: About this site". British Library. Retrieved 3-Mar-2011. 
  28. ^ "Sir John Ritblat Gallery: Treasures of the British Library". British Library. Retrieved 2010-02-08. 
  29. ^ Magnificent Maps on British Library website
  30. ^ Sacred on British Library website
  31. ^ "Evolving English: One Language, Many Voices". British Library. Retrieved 2011-02-06. 
  32. ^ Chadwick, Gareth (5 June 2007). "The British Library: An excellent business support centre". The Independent. "The pilot was such a success that in May 2005 the London Development Agency, the Mayor of London's agency for business and jobs, announced a £1m funding package to turn the project into a permanent resource. The centre's facilities were enlarged and upgraded to include state-of-the-art meeting rooms, a networking area and wireless internet access. A team of information experts is on hand to help people find the information they need. The new centre re-launched in March 2006. In the 14 months since, it has welcomed more than 25,000 people through its doors." 
  33. ^ "What's on offer at the British Library Business & IP Centre?". Startups. Retrieved 2011-01-28. 
  34. ^ a b "British Library Business & IP Centre in London | Frequently asked questions". British Library. 2003-11-30. Retrieved 2011-01-28. 
  35. ^ "UK music archive in decay warning". BBC News. 25 September 2006. 
  36. ^ "British Library Sound Archive staff exchange program". National Film and Sound Archive, Australia. 2010-07-30. Retrieved 2011-01-28. 
  37. ^ "British Library Acquires Major Sound Collection Of Welsh Dialects". Culture24. 22 July 2008. Retrieved 2011-01-28. 
  38. ^ "British Library archival sound recordings project". JISC. 27 July 2010. Retrieved 2011-01-28. 
  39. ^ Cleaver, Alan (2011-01-19). "Farewell to history?". Independent. Retrieved 2011-01-28. 
  40. ^ "British Library digitises 40m newspaper pages to enable paid-for web access". Document Management News. 2010-05-19. Retrieved 2011-01-28. 
  41. ^ "British Library and brightsolid partnership to digitise up to 40 million pages of historic newspapers". brightsolid. Retrieved 2011-01-28. 
  42. ^ "Secret gold chest in treasure ship". Mail Online. 2007-05-26. Retrieved 2011-01-28. 
  43. ^ "The Burney Collection of 17th and 18th Century Newspapers". Retrieved 2011-01-28. 
  44. ^ "The Tapling Collection". British Library. Retrieved 2010-04-12. 
  45. ^ a b c David Beech; Paul Skinner; Bobby Birchall; Catherine Britton, Treasures in Focus – Stamps, British Library, ISBN 9780712309530,, retrieved 2011-01-16 
  46. ^ "Highlights tour". British Library. 2003-11-30. Retrieved 2011-02-06. 
  47. ^ "BL, Facts & figures". British Library. Retrieved 2010-04-12. 
  48. ^ "Beowulf: sole surviving manuscript". The British Library. Retrieved 2008-10-22. 
  49. ^ "Let There Be Light". Library of Congress Information Bulletin. Library of Congress. July 1997. Retrieved 2010-04-12. 
  50. ^ "Manuscripts: Ongoing collections". British Library. 

Further reading

  • Alan Day: Inside the British Library. Library Association, London 1998, ISBN 1-85604-280-4
  • Philip Howard: The British Library, a treasure of knowledge. Scala, London 2008, ISBN 978-1-85759-375-4
  • Mandelbrote, Giles; Taylor, Barry (2009), Libraries Within the Library: The Origins of the British Library's Printed Collections, British Library, ISBN 9780712350358 
  • Colin St John Wilson: The design and construction of the British Library. British Library, London 1998, ISBN 0-7123-0658-7

External links

Coordinates: 51°31′46″N 0°07′37″W / 51.52944°N 0.12694°W / 51.52944; -0.12694

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